CORNVILLE — As a Skowhegan High School graduate, a retired School Administrative District 54 teacher and a parent educational professional who worked at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Somerset County, I feel compelled to break my silence and weigh in on the school mascot controversy. In my opinion, people are not mascots and to use them as such is disrespectful, degrading and dehumanizing.

Some people make the argument that keeping the mascot honors Native Americans for their strength and bravery. African Americans also demonstrated great strength and bravery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required that “all escaped slaves upon capture be returned to their masters and that citizens and officials of free states would have to cooperate.” In spite of that law, runaway slaves fled by following the Underground Railroad, traveling through Maine and escaping to Canada. What if the high school sports program had chosen the “Skowhegan Negroes” (shocking now, but an accepted term back in the 1920s) as the team mascot? Long before now, we would have realized that such a decision was racist, and we would have changed it. So how is it in 2019 that citizens consider it an honor to call their high school teams the “Skowhegan Indians”? A group of people is not a mascot, and most of us in the middle of this controversy are not Native Americans.

We can learn from our history. Many articles, essays, films and books document that for centuries Native Americans have been mistreated, forced off their native lands, relocated onto reservations, even massacred and scalped for a bounty. The new documentary “Dawnland” describes how, in the 1900s, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs unjustly removed Native American children from their families, placed them in boarding schools, orphanages and white foster homes, forbade them from speaking their own language, cut their hair, took away their native clothing and, most disturbingly, never allowed them to visit or reunite with their families. They essentially took away any evidence of their native culture in order to – as the officials saw it – save them from growing up as savages.

In “Dawnland,” the Maine-Wabanaki State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission has given those victims the opportunity to share their heartbreaking stories and record their testimony on film in order to work toward healing and reconciliation. We have made some progress in Maine, but it has been a long time coming. We still have work to do together.

I speak out because I grew up knowing that my ancestors Benjamin and Sophronia Cayford harbored runaway slaves in our family farmhouse on Hilton Hill in Cornville (a station on the Underground Railroad) and transported them by horse-drawn wagon to the next station. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, railroad conductors would have been jailed, and the slaves would have been returned to their masters if they were caught. Their daughter, Laura Cayford, inspired to be a Baptist missionary and teacher, taught in the freed-slave schools in Richmond, Virginia, after the Emancipation Proclamation, later traveling and lecturing about equal rights. I always admired their story of courage to risk their own safety and to take action when others, treated as less than human, were oppressed.

I speak out because I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of getting to know many people (friends and acquaintances in Maine and from my travels, and guests at my lodging business over the past 30 years) who represent a wide variety of races and cultures from all over the country and abroad. I speak out, because I can’t imagine that even one of them would want to represent a sports team as a mascot.

I speak out because I would love to live in a community that accepts and teaches diversity, respects all people as equals and provides positive role models for our children.

Let’s work together to come up with a school mascot that doesn’t offend and that makes us all feel proud. This controversy can be a teachable moment. Ideally, students, teachers and administrators will do some research, come together, have open discussions and hold a fair vote for a mascot that will better reflect the district’s true school spirit. Let’s hope so!

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